A life without flowers: Toxic attachments, Travellers’ ways, and cultural pessimism

Due to work destabilising the legacy of Cartesian dualistic frameworks, it is now theoretically and ethnographically commonplace to suggest that the borders between objects, materials; everything, are intrinsically porous. Subsequently, there is a developing literature focusing on toxic entanglements; how toxins are infused into the food chain (Prince 2021), the atmosphere (Garnett 2018, 2020), and consequently into human bodies (Agard-Jones 2013). Taken together, this work demonstrates the ubiquity of living on a chemically altered planet; or what might be called a global state of in-toxication. Following this realisation, that we now live in relation to, and often in spite of, toxic chemicals, there has been a spate of literature seeking to understand how toxicity simultaneously harms and sustains life. These engagements have given rise to concepts such as ‘chemical kinship’ (Agard-Jones 2022; Balayannis and Garnett 2020; Senayake 2021), ‘chemosociality’ (Shapiro and Kirksey 2017), ‘toxic worlding’ (Geissler and Prince 2020; Nading 2020) and ‘toxic alterlives’ (Murphey 2017). Some of this literature describes how toxicity and intimacy, human bodies and broader political, historical, and economic forces, are so entangled that it would be empirically flawed to prize them apart (Agard-Jones 2017; Bagelman and Wiebe 2017; Murphey 2017; Weston 2017).

Although the Traveller case-study contained in this presentation does, to some extent, correspond to these conceptualisations, the notion of chemical kinship and its analogues are inadequate for several reasons. First and foremost, Travellers would regard chemical kinship to be an extremely curious, even absurd, notion simply because for them familial relations, or what is often termed ‘kinship’, forms the hub around which all else revolves. While the notion of ‘chemical kinship’ indeed destabilised ‘traditional’ conceptualisations of relatedness, for Travellers, and perhaps others practising intense endogamy, it trivialises the sheer existential significance of being born, raised, and cared for by close family, amidst, and despite, widespread societal marginalisation. Furthermore, equating toxicity to family relations on the grounds that they are both harmful and enabling severely discounts the depth and encompassment of Traveller familial life in making their world. This is not to underplay Travellers’ and other marginalised peoples’ experiences of suffering and oppression regarding their toxic environments. However, there is already an extensive literature on such topics; a one in which a focus on domination often screens out the deep significance of Travellers’ and other marginalised peoples’ own understandings of the world. By privileging the latter, I work against the grain of previous work on Travellers and Gypsies, and extend literature focusing on the ambivalent nature of toxicity and its effects on the marginalised. Through doing this, I draw attention to a broader issue in much of the toxic relatedness literature, beyond the enabling and eroding capacities of chemical pollution. I argue that, although the literature on chemical kinship, chemosociality, and toxic alterlives indeed destabilises neat divisions between intimacy and harm, and suffering and life-making; it is framed by an overarching sense of pessimism. This pessimism, I suggest, stems from scholars’ own dissatisfaction with contemporary socio-political conditions, and is founded on an idealised worldview regarding what the world should consist of. The important thing to emphasise here is that such imaginaries often diverge significantly from those held by the people who live their lives in toxic environments.